For years, conservative Christian commentators have accused the left, and a secular culture, of waging a “War on Christmas” by pressing a political correctness offensive to remove religious Christian references and symbols from the public sphere during the Christmas season. There is a fascinating irony in this because, historically speaking, during the formative years of the United States of America, the founders did not consider the yuletide celebration to be compatible with Christian moral values.
A brief historical-theological recap. Although some Christian theologians claim there are cryptic hints in the Old and New Testaments, there are no direct Christian scriptural references to December 25 as the birthday of Jesus. The holiday season itself does coincide with the 12-day pagan festival of Saturnalia, that honored Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture, which was also celebrated with the giving of gifts. The traditional “Yule Log” was named after the Nordic pagan “Yule” rites; when the yule log burned, each crackling spark presaged livestock to be born in the coming year. Holly, mistletoe, and the Christmas pine tree are likewise widely viewed as Christian appropriations of pagan forest lore.
To be fair, all major monotheistic religions have, in some form or another, appropriated lore and ritual from pre-existing or external influences. On the other hand, each monotheistic religion has also targeted certain influences for specific elimination as part of its moral code.
Over the years leading to the American Revolution, there was something of a war of attrition concerning Christmas – but the battle lines were drawn very differently from today. Christmas was not universally celebrated by the colonists nor by a number of European Christian sects. Puritan American settlers expressed disgust with the more base Christmas customs practiced by many in Europe. Since the middle ages, Christmas had been celebrated as raucous, drunken, and bawdy affairs with overtly blasphemous references to pagan roots. Some early Americans mocked the holiday, calling it “Foolstide” instead of “Yuletide.” Celebrations were banned in Boston between 1659 and 1681, and violators were fined five shillings. Historian Mark Peterson describes how eighteenth century New Englanders considered Christmas celebrations a gesture of British interference in local affairs. During his tenure, Edmund Andros, the British Royal Governor, would forcibly close businesses and drive the schoolmaster out of town on Christmas. Once Andros was removed from office, Puritan sensibilities held sway again, and businesses and schools operated as usual on December 25.
With subsequent waves of non-Puritan Christian immigration from Europe, the holiday’s popularity grew in America. It was eventually mainstreamed as a nearly universally recognized Christian holiday and milder versions of the original pagan rituals were recast with Christian sensibilities. Even so, it was not until June 28, 1870, soon after the Civil War, during the Ulysses S. Grant administration, that Congress established a Christmas national holiday. This was done not at the behest of religious leaders, but of “bankers and business men.” While the act mentioned thanksgiving to God, it made no mention of Jesus. Its main gist was the limitation on commercial transactions. By the way, Christmas was not re-instituted as a public holiday in Scotland until 1958.
Despite questions regarding the origin of Christmas and its commercial associations, there is no question that the holiday is a showcase for positive Christian values – charity, brotherhood, family, and personal redemption – instilled into it. In the American experiment, the Christmas holiday has had a part in making these American values as well. Had it not been for the opposition of American Puritans to the pagan origins of the holiday, perhaps the American Christmas phenomenon might not have accomplished what it has: elevating the moral character of its devotees through acts of kindness and serving as an ennobling cultural beacon.
Devout Christians see Christmas as a great time to share the message about Jesus being a human manifestation of God and a personal Savior. While these theological beliefs are lost on me, the sentiments of concern, charity, and love which underlie them are appreciated and warmly shared. Speaking as a non-Christian member of an American religious minority, who does not celebrate the Christmas holiday, my differences with the Christmas narrative is not political correctness; it’s a theological difference.
On the other hand, the lessons of love, morality, and kindness attributed to Jesus (the teacher) can make this a truly national holiday to inspire all Americans. Bill O’Reilly yearly harangues those who greet with generic terms such as “Season’s Greetings” and “Happy holidays,” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Now, I take no personal offense at being wished a “Merry Christmas,” and I make a point of wishing the same to someone whom I presume to be Christian. Likewise, when I wish someone a “Happy Chanukah,” it’s fun to share a good-natured laugh when the recipient happens to be a non-Jew. The point is, the kernel of human brotherhood and kindness is still there in full force. But of O’Reilly and those who feel offended at the “Christmas-free” alternative, I would askthe following. Would his Jesus care more that all people make the Christ-connection in their greeting? Or would his Jesus be more concerned that God’s children share expressions of love and kindness in general?
There are valid claims of secularism taken to the extreme in today’s politically correct America. For decades now, there has been a concerted effort to separate American culture from its Judeo-Christian influences and values. The results of this disconnect have included the disintegration of the American family, incidences of horrifying violence, and the devastation of economic irresponsibility.
Consumer businesses do great in a season with traditions of feasts and gifts, so some degree of crass commercialism at Christmastime, in the media and the culture, is unavoidable. On this note, Americans could well use some Puritan lessons on personal economy and common sense. On the other hand, Christmas also celebrates the bounty and generosity of God, which for most of us entails a trip to some place of commerce – still a poignant article of faith as the coldest, darkest days of winter set in.
A Very Merry Christmas to my Christian brothers and sisters, and to all a Great 2017!
Author’s note: this revised article was originally published in December 2013.
Peterson, Mark A. (1997). The Price of Redemption: The Spiritual Economy of Puritan New England. p. 182. Stanford University Press. ISBN: 0-8047-2912-3.